Saturday, September 24, 2011

Best In Show

It seems like I've been on vacation. Last weekend I went to the VegFest in Portland, where I presented recipes from Speed Vegan to a packed house on Saturday and near-full house on Sunday. That, of course, was the highlight for me (along with completely selling out of both my cookbooks!), but there were other perks. I got to meet a lot of wonderful people, catch up with old friends, and sample some new products.

Top of my list were some new flavors of Theo Chocolate--from a truly excellent company based in Seattle. I admit I was already in love with their products, having tried them at Expo West a couple of years ago--and many times since. I like their name (from "theobroma," the botanical name for the genus of trees to which cacao belongs; it means "food of the gods."). I also like the elegant, whimsical design of their packaging, their ethos (high standard, fair trade, non-GMO), and their creative approach to chocolate making. I've enjoyed many surprising flavors and combinations from artisan chocolatiers, but few that shine through when mass produced. Every single one of Theo's chocolates is impressive, from their single origin 91% cacao from Costa Rica (ooh baby), to their mint--a simple enough, standard flavor, but made with both spearmint and peppermint essence and ground vanilla bean (wow).

It's hard to name a favorite, but the "Fig, Fennel and Almond" bar was truly inspired. Won a gold medal of some kind. The fact that figs are among the sexiest fruits imaginable no doubt gave it an unfair advantage over the other contestants, but often that's what winning is all about.

Another stellar product I sampled was a show-stopping "Marionberry Ice" served up by Kevin Bell, the proprietor of Oregon Ice Works, a single-location shop in Portland. Rarely have I tasted a commercial product with such a potent, small-batch intensity of flavor. His other two offerings at the show, coconut milk-based coffee and vanilla, were also delicious. If you're ever in Portland, you'll want to make the effort to locate Kevin's shop and see why I'm praising his stuff! (Sorry, no photo; I couldn't bring a sample back with me, and I didn't have the presence of mind to snap a shot with my iPhone).

Next, in no particular order--I'm just listing the products that genuinely surprised me--was a raw cracker called "Dr. John's Vita Crisp."

Now, I love raw food, and I understand how beneficial it is, but for the most part I've found raw food products a bit on the hippie-rubbery side. No aspersion on hippies (or rubber), but let's face it, there are some people out there who will eat anything they believe to be "good for you," regardless of how unpleasant it may be to get it down. I'm not one of them. Many raw foods I've tried have had, shall we say, serious pleasure deficits, the main two of which seem to be in the area of flavor and texture.

So it was a pleasant surprise to bite down on these cracker-crunchy, full-flavored raw treats. Made from (all organic) celery, carrots, onions, flax seeds, sprouted sunflower and pumpkin seeds, raisins, apple cider vinegar, sea salt, turmeric, and "other spices"--the latter apparently the only ingredients that create the four very distinct flavors--these healthful snacks are freaking spectacular. That well-researched combination of fat, salt and sugar that makes people overeat junk food is present here, but from natural, whole, organic, raw ingredients. So it's totally okay that they're downright addicting!

Then I wandered over to the "Wilderness Poets" booth, where I sampled some of the freshest-tasting nut and seed butters I've ever had. I met the proprietors, John and Mika, who have that starry-eyed look I've come to recognize as genuine passion--the unstoppable thrill that drives true craftsmen and artists. John introduced me to a couple of food items I'd never come across before: "Jungle Peanuts" and "Incan Berries" both from the jungles of South America. Apparently, the exotic-looking "jungle" peanuts are naturally low in aflatoxins (the allergen to which some peanut-sensitive people react adversely). They have a mild, non-fatty, pleasant flavor, and for some reason their unique reddish stripes made them especially appealing to me. John and Mika combine these and other superfoods in their "Wild Mixes," so-called to differentiate them from the standard old trail mixes. Sweet people, terrific products.

Next to the Wilderness Poets, I saw "Solstice" snack bars laid out for sampling, and almost walked past them, having tried many similar-appearing bars that turned out to be bland at best, or just plain awful. Something about the people standing behind the table made me stop and give them a chance. The first one I tried was astonishingly good--light, crunchy, slightly gooey with chocolate, sweet with goji berries, and very flavorful. I seem to remember there was puffed quinoa in the mix, but now it's all a blur and I don't see it mentioned anywhere in the literature I brought home, or on their website.  At the end of the line of sweet treats, there was one savory bar called "Thai Fusion." My first thought was, "Uh-oh. here's where it gets weird." I was so wrong. It was like eating Pad Thai or Mee Krob, in a snack bar; sweet, spicy, crunchy and gooey, with all the subtle aromatics inherent to Thai dishes. Brilliant, period. Reiner Bohlen, the ring leader, was quite engaging and we chatted for a good while. I was so glad I stopped and took a chance on the "Solstice Goji bars."

The usual drill for me at VegFests like this one in Portland is straightforward: arrive, shop, prep samples, sleep (a little), prep some more, pack, schlep to the venue, set up the demo, present, answer questions, sign books, repeat. I thoroughly enjoy doing this, because I meet a lot of people and (so far) I'm very well received. This time two things were different; 1) I came a day earlier and got most of the prep done well in advance, and 2) my presentations were earlier in the day, so I had a lot of time afterwards to walk the show and visit with people. It was so much more fun this time around, but either way, all in all I have to say I LOVE WHAT I DO!!!


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